Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Hallucinatory Production of
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Also see Richard's reviews of A Little Princess and The Importance of Being Earnest

Matt McGrath and
Maranne Faithfull

American Conservatory Theatre is presenting the exclusive North American engagement of Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and the late William S. Burroughs' extraordinary musical fable The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets at the Geary Theatre. The production will travel to Australia following this run in San Francisco.

If you are expecting a typical Broadway musical, you will be completely disappointed. The Black Rider is amazingly unclassifiable and falls more in line with avant guard German expressionistic films of the '20s like the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The three major contributors have tapped into two centuries of German art to produce this "opera." Some may rather call it a "rock opera," although many of the songs have an early Kurt Weill feel about them. The "opera" draws on the 1810 story Der Freischutz by August Apel and Friedrich Laun, which was based on a 17th century ghost story. Later, Der Freischutz was turned into an opera by Karl Maria Von Weber and is still performed in Europe today.

The Black Rider was first presented in Germany in 1990 by the Thalia Theatre of Hamburg. The piece was first performed in the States at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the New York Times said it was "one of the most persistently insinuating and affective musical works of the recent season." Last month, the piece completed a highly acclaimed run at London's Barbican Theatre where the London Daily Telegraph called it "an extraordinary piece of music theatre ... enough to make the cool drool."

The Black Rider runs the gamut of unrelated monologues, weird and strange noises coming from some of the actors, and words upon words tumbling out of the actor sometimes in duet form. Occasionally, the actors talk about something completely abstract from the play, such as the amazing monologue spoken by Jack Willis in the second act about an author selling the rights of his famous novel to a Hollywood producer. This same actor is dressed like Uncle Fester from "The Addams Family" (in fact all of the actors look like they were in the television series) and starts the proceedings by inviting the guests to look at the freaks as they come out of an oblong black box to start the performance. He has a very distinguished theatrical voice, and it resonates throughout the theatre.

The plot centers on Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), an intellectual young clerk who must learn to hunt in order to marry his true love, a woodsman's daughter, Kathchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara). He strikes a deal with the devil incarnate (Marianne Faithfull) for magic bullets that never miss their mark. However, in this production, nothing is what it seems; the devil sings, animals talk, the walls becomes woods and bullets have minds of their own. In fact, the plot does not really matter as the visuals create an amazing tableaux.

Tom Waits' music and lyrics are bizarre. The dizzying tunes include many kinds of songs: those like early Kurt Weill melodies, wacky piano sounds, creepy sci-fi whistles, Russian folk music, jazz, cabaret and blues. The last song sung by Matt McGrath is a pure Tom Waits ballad, even with the raspy Waits voice. Many of the lyrics by Waits are indeed strange, such these from a love song: "I want to build/A Nest in your hair." There is even a song that sounds strangely like "Rawhide" with the devil on the back of Wilhelm. This is supposed to represent the man's descent into addiction.

Waits' music is played with passion by The Magic Bullet orchestra led by Bent Clausen with some unusual instruments including a musical saw, a French horn and an electric type of keyboard.

Robert Wilson's abstract staging is striking and is almost impossible to describe, since the scenes are constantly changing with lighted objects floating in space, a large moon suddenly appearing as the back drops open, and a forest coming down from the rafters. One can view these quickly changing scenes as if watching a dream, a nightmare or even being on LSD. Some of the sets seem borrowed from the German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its jagged, peculiar set and stark lighting. The characters are a cast of strange faces in white makeup, dressed all in black. Many look like fugitives from Cabaret. They all seem to be floating about the stage, and in several scenes they look like a Martha Graham troupe.

Matt McGrath (Emcee on Broadway in Cabaret, plus New York productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) gives a sterling performance as Wilhelm. His movements are graceful and he gets that raspy voice of Tom Waits in several of the songs. Marianne Faithfull is good as Pegleg and she has a speaking/singing voice that is reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich. Canadian singer Mary Margaret O'Hara has a sublime voice and her movements are exquisite. Jack Willis (has appeared in over 150 productions in the US and associate artist of the Arena Stage in Washington D.C.) dominates the stage every time he appears with his booming Shakespearian voice.

The Black Rider is a feast for the eye, and many of the songs are a banquet for the ear. Yes, it is slow moving, especially in the overlong first act, but that is how William S. Burroughs works. He can make a 20 minute lecture go into a one hour solo piece, and he has a reputation of going over and over and over thoughts. This is like a four hour Wagnerian opera. Just sit back and let your mind escape through the fantasies of the visual effects and melodies.

The Black Rider is currently at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco and it will run through October 2nd. For tickets call 415-749-2ACT or visit ACT's next production will be Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing which opens on October 21.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Hamburg

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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